Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The woman on the train

I knew there was something wrong the moment I saw her. She was standing at the top of the steps on the northbound Belmot Red Line platform, and she was doing that off-kilter leaning-only-at-the-waist thing that people do when they’re really, really drunk.

But she wasn’t really acting drunk—and on further observation, she seemed more lethargic than intoxicated, more physically unstable than chemically impaired, as though she might be suffering from a neurological disorder.

Granted, I didn’t have much time to observe her; I reached the platform as the train was just about to pull into the station. And I wasn’t on an anthropological mission anyway—I had gotten a (way cool) tattoo about 10 minutes earlier, and that was pretty much the only thing I was interested in thinking about.

It was around 7 pm on a Wednesday, and the woman was dressed as though she might have been coming home from work as maybe a cashier in a diner or a housekeeper in a motel. She looked like she didn’t have a lot of money, but she’d worked hard to look as nice as possible within the limits of her budget.

But in sharp contrast to her tidy appearance, there was clearly something wrong with her. I even saw a man walking cautiously away from her as I came up the stairs, as though he’d been moved to step in and see if she needed any help.

I half-interestedly absorbed all this in the 15 seconds between when I reached the platform and when the first cars of the train started rolling by us. At that point the train had slowed down significantly—though it was still going fast enough that you couldn’t make out any faces in the cars as they whizzed by.

The woman started shuffling toward the train. But she didn’t stop at that magical at-least-a-foot-away point where everyone else stops. No, she didn’t stop shuffling until the train was rolling by her about an inch from her face. And she was still wobbly, bobbing and weaving dangerously close to the frames around the windows and doors … and the gaps between the cars, which with one ill-timed wobble could easily grab her, drag her along the platform and crush her in front of hundreds of horrified onlookers.

My brain, not processing what I was witnessing very efficiently, kept me frozen in my tracks as she stood there. I figured maybe she was extremely nearsighted and this is how she always caught the train. I figured the man I’d seen walking away from her was some kind of friend who’d help her if she needed it. I wondered at what point onlookers are supposed to decide that an unstable woman doing dangerous things on a train platform needs intervention. I wondered all of this in the space of a couple seconds.

The guy she’d been talking to earlier—whose brain was obviously the only one fully engaged on the platform—finally ran up and grabbed her by the back of her coat and yanked her away from the train. Barely registering his presence, though, she gave him an unfocused scowl and determinedly wobbled back to her position an inch away from the moving cars—which, after all this, were still going pretty fast.

And then it happened. She wobbled too close, and the frame of a train window CLOCKED her in the head. The momentum spun her around violently, her face an instant mess of blood and bruising and train grime. Yet she never fell over, never dropped her bag—in fact, aside from a brief stunned expression, she never even really looked as though she realized what had just happened. Not even when she reached up to her mouth and spit a bloody tooth into her hand.

By then, the train had stopped and a sea of people spilled out onto the platform. I saw her wobble onto the car directly behind the one I entered. Through the windows, I watched her take her seat. I watched her fish a dirty Kleenex out of her purse and try to sop up the bloody mess on her face that she obviously wasn’t completely comprehending. I watched her mumble and yell and draw stares like the crazy homeless woman the people around her thought she was … the people who had no idea that she’d just come within a hair of dying a grisly, horrible death in front of hundreds of helpless onlookers.

And I felt sick.

“That woman is drunk off her ass.”

I turned around to see the guy who’d pulled her away from the train a few moments earlier. He’d obviously seen her get hit, he’d been watching me watch her, and he looked even more shaken than I felt.

I told him I figured he knew her because he was the only one interacting with her. He said he’d just been kind of trapped into watching out for her as she stumbled around the platform before the train arrived. He said she reeked of alcohol, and that she hadn’t even been sure she was at the right train station. He said she’d refused his help when he offered it.

And then I felt sick and angry. Angry that this woman’s alcoholic stupor was causing so many strangers so much anguish. Angry that her choices almost got her mangled to a bloody pulp in front of a crowd of people whose lives would be forever altered by helplessly watching her die. Angry that only one person on our entire platform was unjaded enough to step in and offer her a meager bit of assistance. Angry that her “pro-life” government was so busy grandstanding over one hopelessly vegetative woman who gave good press that it couldn’t offer meaningful assistance to ambulatory, sentient people whose lives were far too unremarkable to fire up the faithful.

The man and I kept talking, watching her absently tend to her wounds through the train window. A few stops later, she got off and shuffled toward the steps that would take her down to the street.

Her face was still a mess. The Kleenex in her hand was soaked. And she still looked like she had no idea that anything had happened to her.

But, for once, she was walking straight. Upright. As though the events of the evening had at least given her a moment of sobriety.


Todd said...

Wow Jake, that really touched me. Incredible story. Shakes me alert as someone who does not drink because the Dr. has me on Prozac. I'm really touched you told this story.


Sven said...

i still dont think i would be angry at this woman. yea, she is drunk but we don't know what happened to her that day. i just think that her way of dealing with whatever is going wrong in her life might be unhealthy. okay, not might be. it is. at least, i take comfort knowing that as a society, we still look out for those around us. even if they are complete strangers.

Scott said...

Drunks usually live such a morose paradox: she has no one but strangers to look out for her because she's a slobbering alcoholic, but she's slobbering drunk because she has no one to look after her. That's the saddest story I've read in a while.

Dantallion said...

Very moving post, Jake.

portuguesa nova said...

So well written...I saw it all happen perfectly as I was reading (especially since that's my train stop). That is going to be one hell of a hangover.

Workaholic said...

"Angry that her “pro-life” government was so busy grandstanding over one hopelessly vegetative woman who gave good press that it couldn’t offer meaningful assistance to ambulatory, sentient people whose lives were far too unremarkable to fire up the faithful."

That makes no sense whatsoever. You want the gov't to hold the hand of drunken slobs or something? What the fuck does that drunken bitch have to do with the gov't trying to prevent a woman from being starved to death when there is no evidence she wants to die? You see the world from the same fucked up eyes as that drunk on the platform: completely distorted.

Jake said...

Our government is throwing obscene amounts of money and time into a media-manipulating effort to "save" one woman who has been all but clinically dead for 15 years -- curiously eclipsing both the decision-making rights it grants her husband in the bond of marriage it fights so hard to keep "sacred" AND her state's right to be the ultimate decision-maker in the issue, which it defends as the final authority in so many other social conflicts.

I have seen no effort even remotely equaling this cost and news-cycle-friendly moral urgency to combat homelessness, poverty, mental illness, illiteracy, alcoholism, drug abuse, the rampant marketing of controlled substances and/or the grossly inadequate state of our social services.

I said nothing about holding hands. I just called into question the motives of a government that claims to be obsessed with the "sanctity of life" but shows no interest in improving the quality of the lives of people who have a fighting chance -- even the unfortunate people you dismiss as "slobs" and "bitches."

Terri Schiavo put herself in a vegetative state through her own bulimia. And over the last 15 years she's cost our government probably billions of dollars in medical bills, legal fees and misdirected resources. There's no telling what all that time, energy and money could have accomplished in a fight to eradicate the forces that destroy the lives of the legitimately living through no fault of their own.

Fucked up and distorted? I'd use those words to describe your self-righteous anger and your oversimplistic arguments.

NotShyChiRev said...

Powerful comment on the deep frustrations of a reasonable person's encounter with the deeply illogical world of the alcoholic...
Some might look askance at the idea of being angry at one who is ill, and clearly others question whether society has any responsibility for those who suffer from this disease.
What I so appreciate about your honest naming of your feelings is that it so parallels the feelings of those who deal with alcoholics on a daily basis--anger that the person has allowed the disease to so negatively dominate their environment, and frustration with a government that seemingly abandons the field of care for the sufferers of this disease.

Nick said...

See, this is why I never ride on the Red Line.

RcktMan Rick said...

Incredible story, Jake... and thank you for the rebuttal to Mr. Workaholic... You make the right points and said exactly the things I feel about the situation. If our government would spend one iota of money on the real problems in society that they spend on that poor woman in Florida who just needs to die in peace and let her pain end once and for all, there might be some help for people like that woman.

I think I would have been as frozen as you were in the same situation. But at least you were able to recount the experience... and thank you for doing so.

Alina said...

I do wonder why we all freeze when strangers like her need help. I remember and old and very drunk man falling on the stairs of a subway station. All the people in the station were looking at him as blood was covering his face but no one was moving one finger. Someone finally did when he after a second fall. And I also remember seeing a man beating some woman (his wife I think) on the street and no one doing anything about it, although many probably wanted to help. I guess sometimes we worry to much about being misinterpreted if we interfere.

But I think it is normal to sometimes feel angry is such situations. Anger towards the people getting themselves in that situation, society, the current government or towards ourselves. I think it is mostly because none of the previously mentioned targets does anything to end it.

Jake said...

I have removed a comment from this page because it was in direct violation of this blog’s mission statement: to exist solely for my own amusement. (And to give me the occasional opportunity to write about interesting things that happen to me or to lash out at rude people, gay bashers and crack whores.)

My blog not a forum for strangers to zero in on minor elements from my posts, misinterpret them to further political agendas and/or call me names at the expense of the bigger pictures I was writing about.

(Come to think of it, my blog is not a forum for strangers to call me names in ANY context. So you name-callers can just fuck off. ’Cause you’re all stupid-heads.)

And I refuse to let my comments pages devolve into point-by-excruciating-point he-said-she-said exegeses. Nobody comes here to read research papers. And glazed-over eyes have never been an indication of amusement for me or any of the kinds of people I assume read this thing.

I went through similar crap when people erupted so violently over my liposuction posts. I tried to accommodate people’s opinions and let them have their say, but when they proved to be incapable of being civil about it, I eventually realized IT’S MY BLOG, DAMNIT. And I’m doing this for FUN. My own fun.

If you like it, great! Pull up a chair and sit a spell.

If you don’t, go find someone else to bother.

Horton said...

Got to love a man who uses "exegeses" with such ease!!! Now, where's my chair?

Christopher said...

I read the comment before you deleted it. I don't like to call people names so I won't. I won't call him an imbecile.

I recently witnessed a woman being attacked on the tube in London by some random guy (wrote about it here) and nobody, including myself, did anything. I felt really impotent at the time and ashamed of myself afterwards.

I think that until the powers that be offer more overall assistance, in whatever form that takes for whatever cause, it is up to us to help each other out. But it's hard and it's complicated. Fear is often at the heart of it. I know that's what I felt.

Vicki said...

Hi Jake. I am a stranger, but I promise not to call you any names :-)

I just wanted to say how incredibly moving your story was (and how well written--are you a writer?) I was transported to that train station with you, despite the fact I've never ridden a subway in my life.

I completely understand your anger. I know someone who, in a drunken stupor, stumbled out into traffic, causing himself to be hit. The people in that car had to live with that forever: the guilt, the sorrow, the explicit memory in all its visual and audible horror.

At least the "victim" (haha) had the decency to feel bad about his actions. He has taken steps to apologize to the couple in the car, understanding how his foolish actions caused more emotional pain and suffering to them than the physical pain of his two broken legs.

I think of this often when someone is doing something dangerous, foolish, which may result in my hurting them unintentionally, and it makes me furious. Even though I might not be "guilty" as such, their actions might lead me to feel guilty, remorseful, or just simply sorrowful at subsequent events.

And as the daughter of an alcoholic, I understand your frustration that the government (not to mention the media) has focused in on one tragic case, instead of working to resolve the bigger issues. I felt the same way about the Jon Bennet Ramsay case. Thousands of children are murdered every year. Dozens of children were murdered in Bolder that same year. Why didn't we hear about them? What makes the media focus on the Jon Bennets, the Scott Petersons, the Terri Schiavos of this world, allowing thousands of other cases to pass by unnoticed?

Juanita said...

This post was truly gripping, Jake. I love the way you told the story. I probably would have felt the same emotions you did,but I don't think I'd have been able to express them as effectively as you did.

Anyway,society these days forces you to be guarded. Most people would not dare to take the risk and help.

I've experienced quite a few times where people RUDELY refused my help. But a lot of the time, I still try to offer assistance when I can. I refuse to be jaded by bad moments.

I'll let you know if I ever have an experience as exciting and interesting as yours!

Kevdogg said...

Ok, I'm a couple days late on this one. I was on vacation for a week and I've been catching up on all my blog reading and trying to do it in chronological order!

HOLY SHIT!! What a story! I think we've all got similar tales but you just tell it SOOO damn well. And I really love that you mentioned the gruesome way she could have met her end at least four times. It kept me in the moment.

Secondly, (off post topic) I'm a poor teacher and can only afford trips I can take in my car. I try to go somewhere new every year for Spring break. This year, I wanted to see Texas. (I know, "why??" you ask... there was a show about how awesome Dallas was on the travel channel. I believed the show) I hated it. And after reading all about your fabulous trip, I hate Texas even more. (no offense to Texans... I just like green too much I guess.) And, also, you should seriously think of writing a travel guide. Your posts were much more interesting to read than those damn brochures you get.